Bad Ronald is a 1974 Made-for-TV Movie based on the novel by Jack Vance and starring a very young Scott Jacoby as the title character. While the movie is remembered by a certain generation of grown-ups as an iconic creepy thriller with a rather sympathetic schlub of a protagonist, the original source material is much Darker and Edgier.
Ronald Wilby is an awkward, unattractive teen who lives in virtual isolation in an Old, Dark House with his doting but controlling mom. Unable to connect with the cool kids, he spends most of his time alone in his bedroom, writing and drawing material for an elaborate fantasy novel he dreams will make him famous. On his birthday, he gets up the courage to talk to neighborhood cutie Laurie, only to be mocked and rejected by her and her group of equally cool friends. As he walks home, dejected, he accidentally bumps into Laurie's younger sister, Carol, who mocks him for mooning over Laurie. Ronald shoves Carol off her bicycle, causing her to strike her head against a cement block and die. Ronald panics and buries the body before running home to Mother.
Realizing that the cops will soon come looking, Ronald and his mother kick into damage-control mode. Overnight they wall off a downstairs bathroom and create a concealed entrance through the pantry. Ronald will hide in the secret room and his mother will tell the police that he ran away. Ronald will have to live permanently in the secret room to avoid the attention of the Wilbys' Nosy Neighbor. When the heat's off, the two of them will sell the house and move to another town where no one knows them. Ronald, already a recluse, is content to stay hidden and work on his fantasy world while his mom slides his meals through the secret door. But a few months later his mom goes to the hospital for routine surgery, only to die on the operating table.
But Ronald stays hidden, just like Mother told him to.
And then a new family moves in...
This film provides examples of...
- Accidental Murder: What starts off all the trouble for Ronald.
- Adaptational Attractiveness: Book!Ronald is a heavy-set, lumbering, unattractive teen, while in the film he's willowy and Adorkable.
- Adaptational Nice Guy: In the film, Ronald's an awkward, fearful victim of circumstances and bad decisions: he kills a girl by accident, panics, and ends up going mad from the isolation. In the book he is...not that. At all.
- All of the Other Reindeer: Ronald is universally disliked by the popular kids.
- Big Eater: Ellen's boyfriend Duane is suspected of being one of these when her mother complains that someone keeps raiding the fridge. Of course, we know who's really responsible. (In the film, there's no indication that Ronald's appetite is driven by anything but desperation, while in the novel, he really is a Big Eater.)
- The Calls Are Coming from Inside the House: When food disappears from the fridge and items in the girls' rooms are disturbed, everyone reasonably assumes that someone in the house must be responsible. They're not wrong. Later, when Babs goes missing, the police likewise have no reason to suspect she—or her abductor—might still be in the house.
- The Cassandra: Babs dislikes the new house from the start and finds it creepy. The rest of her family dismiss her fears.
- Chekhov's Gift: In the opening scene, Ronald gets a toolkit for his birthday and marvels how "it has everything." By sundown he's using it to trick out his secret lair.
- Death by Falling Over: Carol is pushed off her bike and just happens to land headfirst on a brick.
- Final Girl: Averted in the film, followed through in the novel.
- The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: The Woods sisters, who normally get along well, begin to turn on each other shortly after moving into their new home, each believing one of the others has been rummaging through her belongings. This makes Babs' later disappearance more poignant, as she is the prime snooping suspect; her sister are upset that their last interaction with her had been a quarrel and that their accusations might have driven her to run away.
- Go Mad from the Isolation: Implied to be Ronald's ultimate fate after spending months inside the walls.
- I Want My Mommy!: In the film's final scene, Ronald calls pitifully for his mother as the police take him away.
- Lighter and Softer: The made-for-tv movie is much Lighter and Softer than the original novel, to the shock of young viewers who may have picked up the novel expecting a G-rated YA thriller. In the book, Ronald strangles Carol to death in the course of raping her, then goes on to abduct, rape, and murder two of the Woods' daughters.
- Loser Protagonist: There's really very little to admire about Ronald. Even his art isn't that great.
- Madman in the Attic: Plays up both sides of the trope.
- My Beloved Smother: One gets the sense that Mrs. Wilby always dreamed of having an excuse to lock Ronald in the house and keep him dependent on her.
- New House, New Problems: The Woods' family moves into the Wilby house, where they think the biggest problem is having three teen daughters and only one bathroom...because they don't know what's in the other bathroom.
- No Social Skills: Implied to be the reason for Ronald's ostracization.
- Nosy Neighbor: Mrs. Schumacher, who had a nasty habit of peeping through the Wilbys' curtains even before Ronald became a fugitive. Her comeuppance comes when she peeks through the Woods' windows, spots Ronald, and drops dead of a heart attack.
- The Pigpen: Once the new family moves in, Ronald is unable to bathe without someone hearing the water running. His increasing filthiness is used to show how long he's been trapped. (In the book he was always slovenly and his secrecy is just an excuse to let himself go.)
- Police are Useless: The police believe Mrs. Wilby's story without question and barely bother with more than a cursory search of the house before deciding that Ronald's skipped town.
- Room Full of Crazy: Ronald covers the walls of his secret room with artwork for his fantasy novel, including a life-sized portrait of himself as the handsome prince.
- Spared by the Adaptation: In the novel both Babs and Althea die. (In contrast, nosy neighbor Mrs. Schumacher dies in the film, but survives to pester both families in the book.)
- Stalker with a Crush: Ronald becomes obsessed with Babs, the youngest girl in the new family, and identifies her as the princess in his fictional magic kingdom.
- The Walls Have Eyes: Ronald drills holes through the walls and uses them to spy on the family. In arguably the most memorable scene in the film, Althea, spotting a strange beam of light coming from the wall, peers through one of the holes and finds an eye staring back at her from the other side.